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Reconciling Europe with its Citizens through Democracy and Rule of Law

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - RECONNECT (Reconciling Europe with its Citizens through Democracy and Rule of Law)

Reporting period: 2020-09-01 to 2022-04-30

RECONNECT aimed to understand and provide solutions to the rule of law and democratic backsliding challenges faced by the EU. With a focus on strengthening the EU’s legitimacy through democracy and the rule of law, RECONNECT sought to build a new narrative for Europe, enabling the EU to become more attuned to the expectations of its citizens.

RECONNECT’s point of departure was that European governance is (perceived as) legitimate if its core values of democracy and the rule of law embody justice and solidarity. This hypothesis stems from a context of a growing distrust towards EU institutions, which are frequently seen as unable or unwilling to respond to the concerns of EU citizens. This has created a growing gap between the Union and its citizens that has become the target of a new wave of populism, which challenges the EU’s authority and legitimacy. This has also confronted the Union with the erosion of the foundations of democracy and the rule of law in some of its Member States. Strengthening its founding values such as democracy and the rule of law can be achieved only if EU governance adheres to coherent notions of these values and ensures that both resonate with the preferences of EU citizens.

To this end, RECONNECT has evaluated the coherence within and between democracy and the rule of law, how they are interpreted and applied across the Union, and the extent to which they resonate with EU citizens. RECONNECT has provided a comprehensive diagnosis of the EU’s democratic and rule of law crises by analysing the deep tensions between the principles and practices of democracy and the rule of law, on the one hand, and citizens’ and civil society’s perceptions thereof, on the other. RECONNECT tested this in the context of five policy areas: economic and fiscal governance, counter-terrorism, COVID-19, trade and migration.
Between 2018 and 2022, RECONNECT examined a wide range of issues related to democracy and the rule of law in the EU and beyond: the changing global context; the content and historical trajectories of key concepts; the state of democratic systems in the EU; the impact of populist parties; citizens’ participation; national and supranational understandings of the rule of law; and best practices for upholding the rule of law. RECONNECT also examined challenges in several crucial areas, such as trade, migration, counter-terrorism and fiscal and macroeconomic policy, and actively participated in debates on the impact of COVID-19.

Four surveys were run. The University of Vienna collected data on citizens’ attitudes towards key policy areas before and after the 2019 European Elections with more than 21,000 respondents in seven EU Member States. The Catholic University of Lille explored how MEPs view and participate in EU decision-making in the legislative domain. The University of Münster measured citizens’ preferences towards the EU’s future institutional developments and changes among 12,000 respondents in six EU Member States. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology conducted a Representative Claims Analysis (RCA) of media discourse on democracy and the rule of law in the EU to contribute to a better understanding of existing perceptions of these concepts and the character of debates about them.

Research results have been presented in more than academic articles, chapters and papers, in blog posts, and at academic and stakeholder events. RECONNECT research has been cited in academic writing, by the EPRS and think tanks, as well as by the CJEU.

In addition, RECONNECT actively disseminated its research results online and organized numerous events, including workshops, policy roundtables, high-level lectures, and webinars. A free open online course (MOOC) on democracy and the rule of law in Europe continues to be offered even after the lifetime of the project. Youth info sheets on 10 topics around the EU, European values, and topics close to young adults, bring the content of the research in an accessible manner to the youngest European citizens. All online resources such as webinar recordings, videos, working papers, the MOOC and info sheets remain available online.
Democracy and the rule of law – two of the core values of the EU – are in a state of transformation. Democratic principles are under pressure, with a sharp decline of the quality of public debate in several EU Member States, and overall decreasing electoral turnouts in national and European elections, resulting in a growing disconnect with EU citizens. Populist parties are generally seen as part of the problem, yet RECONNECT argues that rather than being inherently anti-pluralist, they may under certain conditions allow themselves to be accommodated in the democratic system. The rule of law also remains under threat.

RECONNECT has shown that the current challenges are not – as often claimed – conceptual in nature, but rather practical. The rule of law is today among the few overarching constitutional principles that underpin all legal systems in Europe. There is now a broad legal consensus on the core meaning of this principle and its basic components. Its implementation, however, remains challenging. RECONNECT revealed that this is not due to the nature of the instruments in the EU’s rule of law toolbox, which is often claimed to be insufficient, but rather to the lack of political will to use the available tools in a prompt, forceful, and coordinated manner.

Case studies highlighted the practical challenges in different policy areas. With regard to the Union’s macroeconomic and fiscal policy, a growing disconnect with the political preferences in several EU Member States raises questions about the legitimacy of the Union’s principles. In EU trade policy, the inherent tension between transparency and secrecy of trade negotiations and the implementation of trade agreements is increasingly resolved in favour of transparency. In EU migration policy, citizens’ perceptions have been found to be crucial in ensuring peaceful co-existence between migrants and local communities and inconsistencies in internal and external policies should be resolved for the EU to be seen as a legitimate migration partner.Finally RECONNECT has developed recommendations on how to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the rule of law and good governance.

Having analysed all of the above, RECONNECT concluded with policy recommendations and proposed Treaty changes in order to enhance the EU’s legitimacy on the basis of a harmonious convergence among principles, practices and perceptions of democracy and the rule of law. The policy recommendations fulfill the project’s aim to allow the EU to reconnect with its citizens by enhancing democratic and rule of law guarantees.

RECONNECT also proposed a new narrative for EU governance, which rethinks the interrelations between different spheres of governance of EU integration from the points of view of democracy, the rule of law and governance, aiming to reconnect the institutional dimension of the EU with the social concerns and claims of the citizens. The narrative aims to inspire and shape future debates in the process of reflecting on the European project.